Week 13 – Lake Atitlán and Antigua, Guatemala
Hi everybody! We’re writing this from Brazil, having finished the Central America part of our holiday. We’ve had a great week in Guatemala.
Last week I finished writing just as we boarded the overnight bus to Guatemala City. The bus was comfortable, with reclining seats and cushioned headrests, but neither of us managed to sleep very well. I don’t know how I’m able to sleep on bumpy minibus rides but not on overnight buses or planes, it’s very frustrating. I spent most of the night watching the crazy antics of Guatemalan drivers. There was a standstill traffic jam at one point, but everybody seemed to think that it would be ok to just overtake it. We ended up with about three rows of cars where there should have been one, all trying to get back into single file while angry drivers coming the other way beeped their horns. It was mad.
We arrived into Guatemala City at around 6am and had a smooth transfer onto a shuttle bus to take us to Antigua, where we’d catch another one to Lake Atitlán. It was a very long journey! It was quite nice to change in Antigua; we’re coming back here after visiting the Lake so this felt like a sneak preview.
We finally arrived at Lake Atitlán at around 12pm. The view as we came down the hill towards the town was gorgeous. Lake Atitlán is a huge lake formed in an old crater. It’s 12km x 6km and at it’s deepest point is 340m deep. It’s made particularly beautiful by the three volcanoes located next to it. There are multiple towns around the lake, and a lot of modern Maya communities live here. The easiest way to travel from one town to another is by boat. We’d chosen to stay in the town of Panajachel because this is where the bus arrived into.
Our Airbnb apartment was a ten minute walk from the Lake. The main street we walked down was full of souvenir shops. Guatemala’s traditional clothes and fabrics are really vibrant, so the shops made the streets really colourful! Our apartment is very big, with a huge sliding iron door to enter. It’s a strange mix of being quite fancy – it has a huge super-kingsize bed, a fireplace and a dartboard –and in desperate need of repair. Quite a lot of the taps weren’t working and one was missing altogether! After staying in a few hostels though it’s nice to have a bigger space to ourselves again.
We spent the rest of the day collapsed in a heap, recovering from our long night.
Today we decided to visit some of the other towns around the Lake. From our research we’d discovered that each town has its own personality – there’s backpacker San Pedro, hippie San Marcos and relaxing Jaibalito. We liked the sound of the last one!
We caught a boat to a town called Santa Cruz. The town is very steep and built up the hillside. Rather than exploring here, we found the path that would take us along to Jaibalito. We could have gone straight there on the boat but decided that we fancied a walk. It took about 45 minutes and gave us beautiful views of the lake. The sun was shining and it all felt very tropical.
Jaibalito is a very small town that has no road access – you can only reach it by boat or on foot. We’d chosen to come here to visit one specific place, Club Ven Aca. It’s a bar/restaurant with an incredible view over the lake and an infinity pool. We planned to spend the day there relaxing.
We’d read online that you could buy one drink and then stay there all day, but the club must have caught onto this as we were told we had to spend a minimum of £10 on food and drinks in order to use the pool. We didn’t feel too put out by this as they had an amazing dessert and cocktail menu! I was particularly excited by their specialty ‘purple basil mojito’. It was exactly what it sounds like and tasted incredible. Ben wasn’t convinced – he called it the ‘pizza cocktail’.
The infinity pool was pretty cold, but it was alright once you were in (as Michael McIntyre would say!) and I successfully persuaded Ben to join me. It was lovely to relax in the pool and gaze out at the view. I have a waterproof case for my kindle so I spent some time reading while lying in the shallow end. It was so nice.
We caught the boat back to Panajachel in the late afternoon, and in the evening we went to a lakeside bar to watch the sunset. It wasn’t a very dramatic one but it was nice to see the muted gold colours as the sun disappeared behind the volcanoes. It was a very beautiful end to the day.
This morning we hired a kayak and went out on the lake. It was so fun! We were advised to stay close to the coast – the wind was quite strong and we would have struggled to get back if we’d gone into the middle. We had a two person kayak which was cool, but we had to coordinate our paddle strokes which wasn’t so easy, as we never seem to be able to hear what the other is saying at the best of times, let alone when we’re seated directly in front/behind one another. I took the opportunity to take some great 360s on the lake, leaving Ben to paddle for both of us. Poor Ben!
In the afternoon we went to explore the market stalls. Everyone is so keen to get you into their shop (“¡Adelante, bienvenidos!” – “Come in, welcome!)”) , and then they follow you around offering to show you things. As naturally reserved British people we found this quite stressful! All of the shops were crammed full of beautiful and vibrant fabrics, paintings and wooden figures. I liked the hoodies, which were normal but then with colourful Guatemalan fabric around the neckline. I considered buying one, but ended up buying some cool headbands instead which will be much easier to fit into my bag while we continue travelling!
In the evening we went back to the lakeside bar area and had a drink as we watched the sunset. It was lovely.
Because we have fairly limited time in Guatemala, today we moved on to the town of Antigua. It’s so hard to know when you’re planning in advance, but retrospectively I’d have given us a bit more time in Guatemala so we could spend more days at the Lake.
We had another crazy driver on the way back to Antigua. There was quite a funny moment where an American lady on the bus asked him to slow down. He refused because he had to collect people in Antigua for an onward shuttle and didn’t want to be late, and she replied “pero yo quiero vivir” (but I want to live)!
Thankfully we made it to Antigua alive, and after dropping off our bags at our hostel we went out to explore. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was founded in 1543 as Guatemala’s third attempt at a capital city – the first was abandoned after a lot of uprisings in the nearby Maya community, and the second was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Antigua isn’t the capital any more – after a number of devastating earthquakes (and multiple re-buildings of the city), the capital was moved again in 1776 to what is now Guatemala City. Antigua is laid out in a grid pattern, apparently inspired by the Italian Renaissance, and has preserved 16-18th Century buildings. It has cobbled streets, lots of flowers and the houses are painted in bright colours. It has some preserved ruins of old churches, which I believe can’t be knocked down to their UNESCO status, and which are really interesting to see.
We wandered without any particular destination in mind, just enjoying exploring this new place. We saw the famous yellow arch which is in almost every photo of Antigua, and we found Antigua’s main plaza. It reminded us a bit of Quito’s Plaza Grande, except with a large (rather rude – see the photo) fountain in the middle of it. It had lots of benches, and people were sitting in the shade reading newspapers or chatting. There were also quite a number of street sellers. Ben said that he kept expecting to hear them shouting out prices like the people in Quito (“¡helados, dos un dollar, dos un dollar!”). We also found a large indoor market and enjoyed browsing. I was tempted by the colourful bedspreads but it turns out that Ben and I have very different tastes – my choices were too ‘garish’ and his were too ‘boring’!
Today we went to visit the Museo Santo Domingo, which is actually a collection of mini museums in the grounds of an old convent. The building was destroyed in an earthquake in 1773, and the restored parts are now shared between the museums and a fancy hotel. The grounds were very pretty, with an old fountain in the centre. They also had some Macaws on perches around the garden. Apparently these were birds that had been rescued from captivity and who wouldn’t survive in the wild as they hadn’t had the opportunity to learn basic survival skills from their parents when they were young. They seemed very happy and it was amazing to see them so close.
The museums included a collection of colonial art from the convent, a modern art exhibition, an exhibition of silverwork from the convent, and a collection of old Mayan artefacts. The Mayan exhibition was our favourite. The curators had had the interesting idea of displaying the artefacts alongside modern glass sculptures with similar themes. For example, there were bits of pottery with Mayan representations of birds or animals, alongside glass sculptures of these same animals. We thought it was really cool.
In the evening we went out to a bar called Café Sky. It had a roof terrace with an awesome view over Antigua, and more excitingly, of Volcán de Fuego. Mount Fuego is a volcano that has been regularly active ever since the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s. From the bar, you could see it shoot bright red sparks into the air every ten minutes, and the glow of red lava rolling down the side of the volcano. It was quite cloudy, which was a shame, but every time the clouds cleared we got an awesome view. It was amazing. Unfortunately it wasn’t easy to get a photo of! The photo below is terrible, but I thought it would at least give you an impression of what we were seeing.
We woke up today to hear people excitedly discussing Volcán de Fuego just outside the door of our room. Apparently there is a larger eruption every few months, and this month’s one had happened at around 6am. We were sad to have missed it, but were told that the cloud of smoke was still visible. We went outside to see, and were amazed to see the huge plume of ash and smoke above the volcano in the distance. It looked pretty scary, but nobody in Antigua was the least bit bothered. I think I’d find it quite nerve wracking living on the doorstep of a volcano, particularly one which is so active!
We returned to our hostel and breakfasted, before joining a free walking tour. We thought that we’d learn more about the history of Antigua, but mainly we learnt about good places to eat. As part of the tour, we were taken into a Jade Museum. It was a bit like the Emerald museum we’d been to in Cartagena, where the museum was free but attached to a shop and with lots of enthusiastic salespeople. The museum part was quite interesting, but we arrived at the same time as around 10 coachloads of tourists who I think were on a daytrip from a cruise ship. The whole place was packed and very manic. We were taken to a table with lots of symbolic jewellery. The Mayan calendar associated every date with one of 20 ‘day signs’, so we looked up our birth dates in a large directory to find out what our symbols were. We found out that mine was ‘K’at’ the spider – slightly unfortunate considering my arachnophobia! Apparently I have a youthful spirit and I’m happy, carefree and neat. Ben disagreed with the last one and I think my parents might too, remembering my room as a teenager! Ben’s was ‘Kan’ the snake and apparently he’s intelligent, mature, and a lover of justice and peace. I quite enjoyed that even our Mayan symbols recognise that Ben’s the mature old man and I’m the carefree youngster of the couple.
In the afternoon, we went to see a volcano! We’d heard that you could hike up the Acatenango Volcano, then camp at the top overnight to get a brilliant view of Fuego’s regular eruptions. It sounded incredible, but we were quite short on time, and the hike sounded really difficult. I had spent most of the previous day agonising about whether we should go or not, but in the end we agreed that we wouldn’t. I’d found the steep ascent of Quilotoa pretty difficult, as well as the unstable ashy descent of Cotopaxi in Ecuador, and this trek sounded like a 7 hour combination of the two. We’ve promised ourselves that we’ll come back to do it another year!
Instead, we booked onto a tour of another volcano in the area called Pacaya. Up until about 5 years ago you could see active lava flows on Pacaya too, but in the last few years it’s settled down a bit. It’s still active, but much less frequently, and tends to emit smoke and occasionally spit out rocks, rather than erupt lava. We did hear it give an ominous rumble while we were hiking, so that was quite exciting!
In a group of around 20 people, we walked uphill for around an hour and a half to get to the old lava field. The view at the top was amazing. We could see over to Guatemala City, as well as seeing Mount Fuego and Mount Acatenango in the distance the other way. We could see up to the summit of Pacaya, and saw that it was emitting faint white smoke which was quite cool. It was all very exposed and craggy, which made for a very dramatic landscape.
After enjoying the view, we walked down to the lava field. It’s weird to think that the volcano is active below your feet; a fact the guide proved to us when he dug down a small way and picked out a boiling hot rock to show us all, heated from below. It felt like a game of hot potato, we all passed it on very quickly!
The guide had brought marshmallows, and we were told we could all toast them over one particularly hot area which I think was a steam/heat vent. I think this is an activity that would have been better in a smaller group – with 20 people it meant a lot of hanging around, and then trying to toast your marshmallow as quickly as you could when it was your turn. I’d say mine ended up more warm than toasted – but the fact that we’d just done that using the heat of a volcano was quite incredible!
We climbed up to the edge of the lava field just in time to watch the sunset. The view was amazing – we weren’t completely above the clouds but there were some below us, so we felt we were really high. We watched the sun descend – it was one of those sunsets where the sun is visible through the clouds and you can see it as a huge orange orb. It was amazing.
The trek down in the dark was slightly less amazing. The guides hadn’t brought torches or advised us to bring them, so a lot of people were having to use their phones to light the way. Fortunately I’m dating a genius – Ben had brought his head torch – so we managed to walk down without too many problems.
After arriving back in Antigua, we went to the Sky Café again for a drink and to watch Mount Fuego erupting. It was behaving itself and back to just providing small-scale eruptions of lava for our entertainment. It was amazing – I find volcanoes fascinating. It’s funny to think that when I was applying to university, I was divided between whether to apply for Medicine or a Geography degree. In another life I could have been a volcanologist!
Today we had a very thrilling day of life admin and holiday booking. It’s a hard life. I’m happy to say that we’re now booked up until the 2nd March though which is pretty good going!
In the evening we caught a shuttle bus back to Guatemala City, ready for our flight on to Brazil tomorrow. Next week’s post will be coming to you from there! We’re really excited for Rio de Janeiro – not only does the city sound amazing, but we’ll be there for Carnival time!